Over the course of two epic posts, I'll be bringing you 15 films from this year's Grimmfest film festival, all the way from sunny Manchester. Except of course like most fests Grimmfest have gone online this year, giving us landlocked southern types a taste of how they do things up north. So here's the first eight:
In a forest in rural France a man, shirtless and with his back covered in welts, is chained to a tree, before a passing van collects him, to be taken back to a holding area in the middle of an otherwise abandoned farm. Elsewhere a group of people are rounded up while in the wild, and taken back to another part of the same farm where they are held in cattle pens. In each case the 'farmers' are human in form but with the heads of stags, dogs and bulls.
The lone man is fed like an animal, clearly being trained up for some forthcoming event (the reveal of that event is the awful climax of the film). The others wait in their pens, docile and frightened; one attempts escape which does not end well.
There is of course no happy end to this movie, mercifully short at just over an hour. Scenes are short and abruptly cut, and the contrast between the cruelty meted out to the humans and the film's beautiful and mournful French countryside setting, as well as its dialogue free approach (the 'manimals' grunt but the humans remain silent throughout) further unseats the viewer; Damien Maurel's soundtrack, a mixture of drones and sympathetic strings, is also superbly eerie. Anonymous Animals's point is made pretty bluntly and relentlessly (like if PETA were to make a feature film) and although modestly budgeted it's one of the most uncomfortable movies I've seen this year.
Polina (Elena Lyadova) and her husband Igor (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) are a broken couple; their eight year old son Vanya went missing, presumed dead, and Igor blames himself. Traumatised by the loss in their lives, made worse by the apparent lack of a body, the pair make the rather hasty decision of attempting to adopt a child at the local orphanage. Once there Polina finds the selection process too upsetting; but wandering in the grounds she spies an almost feral kid, whose keeper has just shot himself. Polina has taught traumatised children in the past and Igor is a doctor, so between them they have the coping skills. Their initial request to adopt is refused, but later they see the child walking alone along a road and take him home; they’re aware that they are breaking the law, but the need to care is too strong for them to resist.
But despite his feral ways - eating meat raw from the fridge, growling at his protectors - Polina develops affection for him, and through her grief comes to believe that this is in fact her returned child; she even names him Vanya, after her little boy, and they seem to be about the same ages. Igor is less impressed and feels that the replacement Vanya is actually trying to copy their son to fit in (which is odd as the two boys have never met).
But when Polina discovers she's pregnant (something she was sure would never happen again), her interest in Vanya wanes; in return Vanya becomes jealous; and that jealousy turns his mind to murder and revenge.
I really liked this rather convoluted and atmospheric film: it offered up way more than the standard evil child setup I was expecting, although its glacial pace won't be for everyone. I won't give the game away but the explanation behind the child's behaviour is both tragic and intriguing. As 'Vanya' Sevastian Bugaev turns in a performance of incredible ferocity for one so young, his nightmarish outrages only marred by a couple of scenes of ropey CGI. Lyadova and Vdovichenkov are also superb as parents consumed by grief who have lost the art of consoling each other, and the Russian winter, which provides the backdrop to the events, is impressively chilly, reflecting the strange twists and turns of the narrative.
It's 1979 (although a brief prologue covers events ten years earlier) and the Daniels family are recovering from the shock of the death of their teenage son. While mum and dad are separately traumatised, daughter Jessica (Mary Madaline Roe) is left to cope on her own, her only friends being social outcasts overweight Sam (Morgan Chandler) who - of course - has a crush on Jess, and food obsessed Cheddar (Eden Campbell). When Jess visits a local junk shop, she comes away with a load of rubbish which she hopes will aid her school science project. Among the stuff is an old reel to reel tape recorder, which we've already seen in the 1969 prologue where it was involved in the exorcism of a young boy. Fiddling around with the machine, Jess cuts her hand, and her blood drips on to the recorder. This sets off a train of events including a resurrected demon, a series of deaths and the need for a sacrificial victim.
Dall's film is almost entirely centred on the trio of young people; any adults present are mainly two dimensional authority figures, with the exception of stern librarian by day and white witch by night Marybeth Moonstar (a superb turn from Steffanie Foster Gustafson) who aids the trio in understanding what they're dealing with. The problem is that I'm not really the target audience for this kind of thing, where the thrill is less about the story - it's pretty paper thin - than identifying with the geeky friends. Although as a teen movie the F-bombs are let off with surprising frequency and the gore is occasionally a little on the heavy side.
But where the movie scores is its look: Dall chucks everything into the mix to get that 70s vibe. Chopper-style bikes, gas guzzling autos, Polaroid cameras; they're all present and correct, and the time stands still town of Enumclaw, Washington is used as a location. Even the soundtrack is pastiche; instead of using original sounds from the period (for which rights would probably have been cost prohibitive) the director has used faux retro 70s bands like 'Smokey Brights', 'Hobosexual' and 'Prom Queen.' Don't get me wrong, it works, but I could have done with more horror and less attention to detail.
The following day, with Alex feeling unwell, Russel and Ingrid invite Petri onto their boat, and after plying him with marijuana and hypnotising him, Alex participates in a weird ritual that involves sucking on a tentacle that appears from Ingrid's lady parts. After this a more docile Petri becomes 'one of them': a rift gradually opens up between Alex and her husband, and the arrival of Alex's sarcastic friend Deb (Jackie Debatin) only serves to highlight the weirdness of the community, who they encounter at a party. But the Solar Beach residents answer to a higher fishy power, and Alex begins to fear for her life.
In Lovecraft lore, the 'Deep Ones' are an ocean-dwelling race, with an affinity for mating with humans. Sounds familiar? Well readers may have seen the 1980 movie Humanoids from the Deep, which covered pretty much the same ground, although without the Lovecraft context. And honestly, despite the credit of Hengi Hawk as the 'R'Lyehian Dialogue Coach' - which does at least show commitment to the cause - throwing in random references to Dagon and Cthulhu don't really make this one a major contribution to the writer's cinematic canon.
The Deep Ones scores higher in its quirky cast of characters. Russel has an oily, slightly creepy quality (like a more over the top Terence Stamp) and visiting doctor, the trans Dr Gene Rayburn (Timothy Muskatell) has an overbearing bedside manner which is the opposite of comforting. I liked Alex's friend Deb too, although her withering assessment of the community ensures that she's bound to be an early showers character. "I've been to Burning Man twice, but these people go way beyond.." she concludes.
Ultimately, The Deep Ones sets itself up well but then doesn't really know where to go with it. The threat from the community is pretty much announced in the first twenty minutes, and with a small budget there was never going to be a final reel set piece. It's a watchable enough film, but not much more.